, Volume 178, Issue 2, pp 271-289

Design and its discontents

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The design argument was rebutted by David Hume. He argued that the world and its contents (such as organisms) were not analogous to human artifacts. Hume further suggested that there were equally plausible alternatives to design to explain the organized complexity of the cosmos, such as random processes in multiple universes, or that matter could have inherent properties to self-organize, absent any external crafting. William Paley, writing after Hume, argued that the functional complexity of living beings, however, defied naturalistic explanations. In effect he dared anyone to come up with an alternative to his inference to design, and hence a designer, outside of nature. Charles Darwin explained the apparent design of functional complexity by his theory of natural selection. Asa Gray, however, in essays as well as in correspondence with Darwin argued that natural selection allowed for a type of ‘evolutionary teleology’ in which design at most could be considered the result of universal principles. F.E. Hicks updated Hume by specifically objecting to the use of design arguments by Paley. Hicks argued that the apparent design seen in nature reflected order at a deep level in nature. The design argument was briefly revived by Lawrence Henderson early in the twentieth century but he ultimately concluded that design and teleology were not necessarily mutually entailing and he retracted his design argument in favor of one that he termed ‘natural teleology’. The current claims of ‘intelligent design’ have the same logical problems that have beset previous design arguments. If design is divorced from teleology and its discontents put behind us, then there is a possibility that the latter can have a place in the development of theories to explain the phenomena of emergent complexity.